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Seeing the Tsunami, Up Close

Journalist Michael Dobbs is a staff writer for The Washington Post. When the tsunami hit South Asia last week, Dobbs and his brother Geoffrey were swimming near the small island Taprobane off the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka.


Other segments from the episode on January 6, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 6, 2005: Interview with Michael Dobbs; Interview with Geoffrey Dobbs; Interview with Sharad Devarajan.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Michael Dobbs of The Washington Post describes his
experience surviving the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It was supposed to be a beautiful vacation on a private island in the Indian
Ocean just off the coast of the southernmost part of Sri Lanka. Michael
Dobbs, The Washington Post national education reporter, was spending Christmas
there with his wife, children and his brother, Geoffrey Dobbs. Geoffrey is a
businessman who owns the island and its hotel, as well as three hotels on the
coast of southern Sri Lanka.

The Dobbs brothers were swimming in the ocean around the island when the
waters rose and the tsunami hit the shore. They survived, and so did all the
guests and the staff on the tiny island. A little later we'll talk with
Geoffrey about the work he's doing now to help local fishermen and small
businesses get back on their feet.

First, we'll hear from Michael Dobbs, who's back at home in the Washington,
DC, area. I asked him to describe his swim the day of the tsunami.

Mr. MICHAEL DOBBS (The Washington Post): I had been going for a swim every
day around the island, and about 9:00 on the 26th--that's the day after
Christmas--I was going for what had become my usual morning swim around the
island. And I guess I was about quarter of the way 'round when my brother,
Geoffrey, started shouting at me from behind. He was also in the water but a
little behind me. And he said, `There's something very strange happening with
the sea. Come back.' And I couldn't quite understand what he was talking
about because it was a beautiful, cloudless day, absolutely perfect sky, and
there didn't seem to be a wave in the sea. But then I noticed that the water
level was rising very, very quickly, and in the space of about two minutes, it
rose about 30 feet, and at the same time I was pushed toward the shoreline by
a very, very strong current.

Fortunately both my brother and I managed to grab hold of a fishing boat.
They had--the fishermen there had very colorful fishing boats, catamarans,
which they used to go out and collect fish, and they usually just--when
they're not out fishing, these boats are just there on the shoreline, on the
sandy beach. So I grabbed hold of one of those while the water started rising
very, very fast. And that, you know, was my initial experience of it, just
water rising much faster than I could explain.

GROSS: When you were in the ocean, how did you realize the water was rising?
I mean, you didn't perceive the tsunami as a wave, you just perceived it as
the water rising.

Mr. DOBBS: Well, I could feel myself being buoyed up by the water, and rising
very quickly. And also I saw the island that I had just come from
disappearing because the water level was going halfway up the island. The
beach had completely disappeared. And the water was rushing inland. So I had
a very strong sense of tide of water rising me up. And all I could--I
couldn't think immediately of any natural explanation for this so I
immediately actually started thinking of the Bible and the Book of Genesis and
Noah's Ark and those were the kind of images that came to my mind.

GROSS: Do you grabbed onto a small fishing boat. Was that enough to keep you
safe during the tsunami?

Mr. DOBBS: Well, lots of these fishing boats ended up half a mile or so
inland, crashing against everything in their path and destroying houses
and--or little fishermen's huts and so on. I later figured out that the boat
that we had grabbed hold of had itself jammed against a rather more solid
structure. It turned out to be the fishing market and it was made of
concrete. So that boat wasn't going anywhere. And so instead of being swept
inland, we were just--the boat just rose and rose. It later was torn off its
moorings but that was when the water came out of the bay rather than when it
was going into the bay.

GROSS: Well, were you holding onto the boat still when the water started to

Mr. DOBBS: I--actually, my brother, at that point, had let go of the boat and
waded ashore because he thought it was safe and that the worst was over. I
held onto the boat a little longer and then when I thought it was safe I let
go of the boat and what I hadn't figured out was the water having gone in
would come out again. And which it did with probably even more force that it
had originally come in. So having let go of the boat for a few moments, I
was--I felt that I might be swept out to sea. It was a very, very strong
current. I'm quite a strong swimmer, so fortunately I was able to swim to one
of the catamarans that had come loose and was just floating in the sea and
grab hold of it and I guess my weight must have somehow slowed it down because
the receding wave overtook us and we were quickly left stranded on the beach.

GROSS: So when you finally were able to wade onshore it was onshore of this
little island that your brother owns?

Mr. DOBBS: That's right. Well, before during that actually. I had been
worried about my wife because I had--when I went for my swim, she was wading
back to the island. I wasn't sure if she'd made it or not. And it turned
out that she hadn't. We--my brother and I went to look for her and we found
her as she was getting down from a palm tree on the other side of the coastal
road. She had had actually a more terrifying experience than either my
brother or me. She had been caught by the wave. It had pushed her inland,
across the road. She was underwater for some time. Somebody tried to grab
her, one of the local villagers. She couldn't reach out to him. She finally
found a piece of rope that was somehow attached to a tree and she pulled
herself up into the tree. She actually has two artificial hips which have
dislocated in the past. We were a little worried going to Sri Lanka in the
first place. Because there's not very good medical treatment, particularly in
fairly remote villages where we were. But we took the chance. But it would
have been a nightmare if one of her hips had dislocated during this whole

GROSS: But they didn't.

Mr. DOBBS: They didn't. Although she was sort of held out and
being--particularly when the water was receding she was grabbing onto the tree
and the rope but the hips stayed in place, thankfully.

GROSS: So was she still in the tree when you found her?

Mr. DOBBS: She was just getting down from the tree, worried about what had
happened to us.

GROSS: And where were your children?

Mr. DOBBS: The children were still asleep, actually. They were inside the
house about 60 foot up. And the--when the tsunami struck, there--more guests
staying with us. They didn't wake the--they were worried about what happened
to us but they didn't wake the children so the first thing the children knew
about it was when they saw their parents walking, actually, because there was
no water in the bay at this point, back across the narrow strait to the island
and they were very happy to see us quite safe and sound.

GROSS: At what points did you find out the magnitude of the tsunami?

Mr. DOBBS: Well, it took place at 9:15 and about 3:00 in the afternoon we
decided to go to a friend's house on the mainland. We waded back--the water
was still quite high but we waded back across the strait and we took a left
turn which is slightly up the hill. The--if you take a right turn, you end up
in the village of Weligama, which is pretty much on the--at sea level. We
walked up the hill and there was not too much damage because it had been above
the level where the water had reached. We reached our friend's house which is
actually quite high up on a hill so they had suffered no damage at all, but
they had radio. We listened to the BBC World Service and this was the main
news on the BBC and it was beginning to talk about massive casualties all
around the South Asian region so that was when I decided that I really had to
get in touch with the newspaper because up until that point I'd thought that
maybe this is some local Sri Lankan disaster tidal wave, not many people
killed, relatively few people in the US would probably be worried about it.
But then I discovered that it was a much bigger disaster than that. So I
wrote a story actually back on the island by candlelight and called up my
foreign desk, my foreign editors. One of the Australian women had a cell
phone. The battery was running out, but the battery lasted, and I was able to
dictate my story to Washington.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Dobbs, national education reporter for The
Washington Post. We'll talk more about what he saw in the aftermath of the
tsunami after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Dobbs, the national education reporter for The
Washington Post. He was vacationing on his brother's tiny island off the
coast of Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit on December 26th. The next day he
drove up the coast to the nearest city.

What are some of the other things you witnessed as you were driving around the
coast of Sri Lanka?

Mr. DOBBS: Well, coming up from Williagama to Galle, it's about a half-drive
drive, but it took us about two hours to make the drive. You then got a much
clearer sense of the devastation, the sort of ribbon of total ruin 2 or 300
yards inland, sometimes up to half a mile. It varied a little bit because
there are some higher parts of the coast that weren't much affected. But
anything at the sea level, pretty much all the houses, were ruined; all the
businesses, fishing boats inland, vehicles sort of turned upside down, bridges
down. And the worst place to be was probably in a vehicle or a train going
along the coast because you were trapped in a confined space and couldn't get

When we arrived in Galle--my brother has a little hotel on a hill above the
city, so it wasn't affected at all, really. There's still paying guests in
the hotel. They'd been planning to organize a wedding there later that week.
But as soon as we got to Galle, I walked down into the city's center, which
was completely devastated. And the worst part of it was--Galle is an old
Dutch fortress. The fortress dates back to the 17th century, huge and very
solid structure. The tsunami didn't get into the fortress, but it went around
either side of the fortress. And these two rivers of water met at the bus
station on the other side of the fortress and completely wiped out the bus
station, caught a lot of people in the--sitting in the buses, trapped them
inside. Many people were killed by--either drowned or killed by flying glass.
The scene at the bus station was pretty terrible.

GROSS: What did you see there?

Mr. DOBBS: I went down to Galle--first of all, I walked through what used to
be the shopping district of Galle. I hadn't seen it before, so I'm not quite
sure what it was like before. But, at any rate, by this time all the shops
were either collapsed, they were in ruins or there was--they were waterlogged.
Whatever possessions had been in the shops had been washed away or looted;
there was a little bit of looting there. And so I walked along this sort of
scene of just rubble, which bulldozers had already arrived, so they were
clearing the streets of rubble. The streets were, more or less, clear.

And then I arrived at the large, open space in the middle of Galle, which used
to be the bus station. And the buses were either piled on top of each other,
or the waves--the tsunami had taken up a bus from one part of the bus station
and tossed it to another part of the bus station 2 or 300 yards away. It was
as though--just imagine a bus station with somebody--as though somebody had
taken--some supernatural being had taken all the buses in their hand and just
plunked them in a pile on the side of the road. I've experienced two
earthquakes before, one in Yugoslavia, one in Romania, and I have never seen
quite the destruction that I saw along the coast and in Galle.

GROSS: Had the bodies been removed from the buses?

Mr. DOBBS: Most of the bodies had been removed from the buses, but they were
still--there were still some bodies in houses and shops around. That morning,
just before I had arrived in Galle, actually the bodies--many bodies had been
laying out in the sun, row after row of, I guess, mainly bus passengers and
people who happened to be there. And they'd been taken away. Some were
identified by relatives; others were buried in mass graves. But the following
day, in Galle, the authorities actually closed off the center of the town and
refused to let people into the town because they were sending the army and the
police house to house searching for bodies and removing them. And by that
time there was pretty much a stench of dead bodies.

So it took two or three days to remove most of the bodies from the town. And
then the day after that, they finally let the townspeople back into the
business section of the town, and then the town again began to assume some
life. But the first day when I'd went down there, there were very few people
there. They let me down--the police let me in as a journalist, but they
weren't letting ordinary townspeople in.

GROSS: Sri Lanka had had a long insurgency in which the Tamil Tigers were
fighting against the government. There's been a cease-fire for a couple of
years. But, you know, I've been reading reports about how the Tigers have
been helping a lot with the relief efforts; how the Tamil Tigers and
government people have been talking to each other and collaborating on relief,
which is very interesting. Did you witness any of that?

Mr. DOBBS: The Tamil-controlled areas of the country are more to the north
and northeast. Certainly the eastern coast was very badly affected. We had a
reporter there, John Lancaster, and he reported that there was unprecedented
cooperation between the government and the Tamil Tigers. There'd been a
cease-fire line, and one group wouldn't allow the other group to go into its
territory. But there seems to have been a lot more cooperation in the last
few days, but I didn't see that myself as I was right in the south, which is
more of--is Sinhalese part of the country, controlled by the government. But
this did have an impact on this rather tenuous cease-fire between the majority
Sinhalese and the Tamils.

Also, the tsunami came just as the local economy was getting back on its feet
three years after the effective end of the civil war. The economy had been
pretty much destroyed, and tourists hadn't been going to Sri Lanka for a long
time. And this was going to be one of Sri Lanka's best tourist seasons ever,
I think. So that's another tragedy about this tsunami; that it came just as
the economy was getting back on its feet.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for speaking with us, and I'm glad
that you and your family, you know, weren't hurt. So, anyways, thank you very

Mr. DOBBS: Thank you very much. Nice to talk with you.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Geoffrey Dobbs discusses helping fishermen and small
businesses get back to work in Sri Lanka

Michael Dobbs is the national education reporter for The Washington Post.
This morning we called his brother, Geoffrey Dobbs, in Bandra on the
southernmost part of Sri Lanka. Geoffrey is a businessman who owns the tiny
island off the coast of southern Sri Lanka, where the Dobbs family was
vacationing when the tsunami hit. Geoffrey also owns four hotels in the
region; two of the hotels are still intact, but instead of vacationers, they
are now filled with reporters from around the world.

Geoffrey Dobbs has joined the relief efforts to get fishermen and small
businesses back on their feet. He says the economy of Sri Lanka's southern
coast depends on tourism and fishing.

Are a lot of fishermen afraid to go back to sea now?

Mr. GEOFFREY DOBBS (Businessman): Well, a certain amount of them are for
various reasons. I mean, obviously, this part of the coast is reliant on
fishing and tourism as its main forms of income. The fishermen, of course,
were very close to the sea when the tsunami struck, but not many of them were
out at sea because it struck at 9:30. But, of course, many of them lost their
families, and they're very traumatized because of that. And there are, of
course, persistent rumors that another tsunami will come, and at the moment
the biggest rumor is that there'll be a tsunami on the 8th of January. So
people are very scared about that, and most of them are sleeping inland at

GROSS: Is there any scientific evidence to back up that rumor or that

Mr. DOBBS: Well (technical difficulties). If I'm honest with you, I think it
is total rumor. But I really haven't had the time to listen to any radio
broadcasts, so I can't pass comment on that. All I can say is that there...

GROSS: Are you taking it seriously?

Mr. DOBBS: To be honest, I'm not taking it seriously, but, you know, if
there--I mean, just, in fact, yesterday, while we were bringing in some fish,
the first catch of the day, there was a rumor that there was a tsunami, and
there was complete panic in the street.

GROSS: Let's get back to the fishermen for a moment. I know that there are
so many people who were lost at sea that a lot of people are afraid to eat
fish that are caught in that sea because of all of the dead and decomposing
bodies. What are some of the concerns about the quality of the fish?

Mr. DOBBS: Well, that is another rumor which is spreading around the
country, and in order to try and squash that rumor, a few nights ago we asked
the fishermen of the fishing village of Marissa to go out to sea. They came
back in the morning, and we had a barbecue in front of some of the world
press. We ate the food with the fishermen to indicate that we did not have
any fears about eating it. We then organized for seven fishermen to go up to
Colombo to meet the president and her entire Cabinet at their weekly Cabinet
meeting. They were presented with the fish. We also presented fish to the
leader of the opposition, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe. And we are urging
people to eat fish. I mean, of course, in Colombo, restaurants and hotels
stopped serving fish, and we want to get people serving fish. And, in fact,
we're appealing to the world to eat fish and, in fact, order fish from Sri
Lanka, so that will encourage the fishermen to go back to work.

GROSS: This is a pretty gruesome image, but I was wondering if there are
concerns that fishermen who use nets to catch fish would also be catching
bodies or body parts in those same nets?

Mr. DOBBS: Well, I suppose there is a chance that that might happen, but
hopefully that won't happen. I mean, I guess it might happen. Actually next
week we have 10 divers coming into our area, and they will be diving and
searching for bodies. But, I mean, to be honest, I don't think that many
people went out to sea. Most of the people who died were people who were
caught in the tsunami, which came inland, and they were trapped in buildings.
I mean, I myself heard a lot of people dying from being drowned as buildings
collapsed around them.

GROSS: Geoffrey Dobbs is a businessman in southern Sri Lanka. He's now
working to help local fishermen and small businesses get started again. We'll
hear more about his relief efforts in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our interview with Geoffrey Dobbs, a
businessman in Sri Lanka who's helping with relief efforts. Also,
Spider-Man's new counterpart in Bombay. We talk with Sharad Devarajan, the
publisher of Spider-Man India. He also licenses Marvel and DC Comics for
distribution through South Asia.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to the conversation I recorded this morning with Geoffrey
Dobbs, a businessman who owns three hotels on the coast of southern Sri Lanka
and owns a tiny island with a hotel just off the coast. He's now part of the
relief effort trying to get local fishermen and small businesses back on their

Can you describe a little bit how the area around you has changed in the past
few days? I'm assuming that things are physically being cleaned up, that
bodies have been removed and that things aren't exactly returning to normal
but that there's some sense of time having elapsed between the tsunami and
now. Can you just describe a little bit how things have been changing in the
past few days?

Mr. DOBBS: Well, I'm very impressed with the way that villagers have cleaned
up their villages. I mean, of course, there's still a huge mess around, and
there is complete devastation in some villages. And it will--I mean,
buildings are totally collapsed. But, no, all the roads are open now. You
see huge piles of rubbish, which have been neatly collected. You know, I'm
(technical difficulties) impressed with the way that the villagers have, you
know, to the most extent, done the cleaning up themselves. And every time I
go up and down the coast road, which I'm doing quite frequently now, you see
huge strides. So when--in fact, on the 28th of December, I was very depressed
and thought, `This is going to take years for the economy to rebound.' But
now I'm cautiously optimistic that the economy will rebound reasonably

GROSS: Have you seen many signs of foreign aid?

Mr. DOBBS: Well, I've heard that there's lots of foreign aid in the capital.
To be honest, I have not seen a lot of aid down in the south, particularly in
the small villages, which are the areas which we have decided to help. And
then there is, I think--I mean, obviously the city of Galle has received a
huge amount of publicity for the tragedy that they suffered, and, you know, a
lot of aid has gone to them. But it still has to trickle down into the
villages, and, in fact, I was just rushing from the village today to get this

GROSS: After having been swimming in the ocean when the tsunami struck, are
you spooked at all about being near the ocean?

Mr. DOBBS: Not at all. In fact, I went swimming in the sea today. At the
moment we don't have fresh water, so in order to wash, I have to swim in the
sea every day.

GROSS: You own several resort hotels and a small paradise island. Tourism, I
know, has been very important for the economy of Sri Lanka. I'm wondering how
you feel about that kind of luxury getaway that you run--if your heart will
still be in that after the devastation of the tsunami?

Mr. DOBBS: Of course. Of course it will. You know, I have no intention of
leaving Sri Lanka. And, no, I'm actually sitting with my daughter at the
moment, who's helping me at the moment with distributing food to camps. And I
am, in fact, starting to renovate my places tomorrow.

GROSS: Tell us something about this coalition that you've put together of
businessmen to help distribute aid to people who've been affected by the

Mr. DOBBS: We are not a charity. We are not an NGO. We are a group of
private individuals and companies who sprung up because nothing was happening.
And we now have formed a new sort of coalition of like-minded people spreading
from Bentota, which is approximately 50 kilometers south of the capital, all
the way down the coast and all the way up the east coast. And we're swapping
information. We're transferring supplies where supplies are needed. You
know, we're not hoarding, we're not being squirrels. We can make instant
decisions because we don't have to make a decision by committee. This is all
our own money. Of course, we hope that people will support us by sending us
funds later, but at the moment it's all our own money.

If people, you know--I feel I have a ...(unintelligible) load of Sri Lankan
rupees in my pocket, and when I think I see a worthwhile cause, I just pay out
the money without asking for any, you know--I don't ask for any receipts from
them, and I don't--I just say to them, `I will come back tomorrow, and if I
don't see any progress, you won't get any more money.' I mean, for instance,
there's a person who sells little boats opposite my island whose livelihood
has been ruined because there are no tourists coming. I do have some shops in
Colombo, and I said, `OK, if you make some boats, I will sell them in your
shop.' Equally, Weligama, which is a village which is opposite my island,
is very famous for ladies who make lace. And I said to them--in fact, I gave
them just $500 today, and I said, `You clean up your place, you get back to
work, I will buy you instruments for you to make your lace. And if I see
improvements, as you know, I will fund you more money.' And, you know, that
is the way that I think, you know, reconstruction should take. I mean, I
don't think--you know, I mean, the whole point is to get people back to work.
Now that is my message.

GROSS: Have you ever done anything like this before?

Mr. DOBBS: I've never done anything like this before at all, you know. I
mean, I'm a total amateur at it. But, you know, in some ways, if you don't
know what you're doing, you just get it done, and that is what myself and my
colleagues--I have a Belgian colleague here, I have a German colleague, I have
Sri Lankan colleagues, who all think in the same way: totally unselfish and
just, you know, wanting to get Sri Lanka moving again.

GROSS: How are you deciding which business to help out and give money to,
which fishermen to try to help?

Mr. DOBBS: Well, we're trying to help all the fishermen. I mean, we've--in
the village--in the Bay of Weligama, there are 10 fishing communities. We've
taken all their numbers. And then some have been dishonest and--about the
state of their losses, but those people we're going to give a black mark to.
And, you know, we've told them that if that happens, we will not give them
aid. And, in fact, most of the fishermen--they realize that and they're, you
know, being very responsible about it.

GROSS: Thank you very much, and good luck with your work.

Mr. DOBBS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Geoffrey Dobbs is a businessman who owns several hotels in southern
Sri Lanka. We spoke this morning.

Coming up, a story about global culture. Spider-Man has a new counterpart in
India. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Sharad Devarajan discusses Gotham Entertainment Group's
new publication, "Spider-Man India"

Spider-Man now has a counterpart in India. He's the superhero of the new
comic book "Spider-Man India." This series is adapting the comic's characters,
costumes, settings, adventures and mythology for an Indian audience. My
guest, Sharad Devarajan, is a lifelong comic book fan and the CEO of Gotham
Entertainment Group, which is South Asia's leading provider of international
comic magazines. They license publications for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, King
Features, Mad Magazine and Warner Bros., including Spider-Man, Batman,
Superman, the Hulk, X-Men, Tarzan, The Powerpuff Girls, Popeye, Scooby-Doo,
The Flintstones and Wonder Woman. Gotham publishes in India, Singapore,
Malaysia and other South Asian markets in English, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and
Malaysian languages.

Devarajan was born in New York to Indian immigrants. He says that "Spider-Man
India" fulfills his dream of taking an American superhero and re-creating him
as an Indian boy growing up in Indian culture.

In the original "Spider-Man," the main character is Peter Parker, who is
described in the first "Spider-Man" comic as `a clean-cut, hardworking honor
student. He's not very popular. And as one of the popular kids put it,
"That bookworm wouldn't know a cha-cha from a waltz,"' just to show how old
this story really is. Tell us about the background of the Indian character.

Mr. SHARAD DEVARAJAN (CEO, Gotham Entertainment Group): Well, similar--I
mean, the story that you're referring to by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko is an
absolute classic. I mean, it's really--one of the greatest things about that
story was that it was almost the complete origin of "Spider-Man" in just one
small comic magazine, whereas now stories are much more lengthy in current
comic books. So that was definitely very influencing to us, as we tried to
put this story line together.

But one of the things that we were really trying to make happen here is, as
opposed to, let's say, the US edition, most of the Western comic book mythos
have been really influenced by the concept of man vs. science and especially
the comics like "Spider-Man" and "Daredevil." And many of the comics that
came around in the '60s were really a result of, you know, man just coming to
grips with radiation and atomic power and: How does that radiation affect
people, and what are the kind of effects of that? Would it cause mutations?
Would it cause superpowers?

So unlike that concept, what we wanted to try and touch upon was a chord
that's more relevant to the Indian mythos and the concept of man vs.
mythology. And we've always believed that, you know, this concept of a
superhero really relates to a universal psyche that already is there in India
through centuries of religious and mythological storytelling that depict gods
and heroes with supernatural abilities.

So the goal for us was really to try and see if we could, in some way, kind of
interweave this mysticism, this mythology, into "Spider-Man's" very origins.
So when you look at--I guess directly to compare the two, if you look at the
Western "Spider-Man," he gets his powers from a bite of a radioactive spider.
In our version, the Indian-equivalent character Pavitr Prabhakar, instead of
Peter Parker, actually gets his powers from a mystical yogi, who bestows them
upon him. You know, kind of in a similar vein, what we have is the villain,
The Green Goblin villain. In the US comics, The Green Goblin gets his powers
from a science experiment gone wrong, again, tying it back to the roots of
science, whereas we really wanted to bring that home into the mysticism and
mythology in the Indian market. So our version of The Green Goblin is
actually a reincarnated Rakshasa. And a Rakshasa is a classical Indian demon
from ancient myth, so--who has kind of been reborn on modern day and gained
these powers through that.

GROSS: In the original "Spider-Man," Peter Parker is marginalized because
he's nerdy, he's a bookworm. What about the Indian counterpart? Is he...

Mr. DEVARAJAN: That's right.

GROSS: ...criticized for being too smart?

Mr. DEVARAJAN: (Laughs) That's right. I mean, one of the challenges was that
certainly, due to the highly competitive nature of Indian schools--I mean,
that's certainly something that wouldn't resonate very strongly with the
Indian ethos. Most of the people in India are studying very hard. The
reality of what we tried to do with this was we wanted to say, `Well, since
grades are not as fundamentally a negative, let's say--that people are looked
at as bookworms or studying too hard'--in fact, those are positive attributes
in the Indian society. We wanted to find a way to find something that could,
again, make the Pavitr Prabhakar character an outcast in contemporary Indian
society, especially since the school he goes to is supposed to be a very
affluent, rich, upperscale school in Mumbai, or Bombay.

So what we've done is we interweaved another kind of cultural element that we
feel is taking place in India today, and that's the distinction between the
kind of fast-moving cities that are moving ahead at light speed, where the
kids and the teen-age lifestyle there is almost as contemporary as anywhere
else in the rest of the world, vs. the villagers and the rest of, you know,
Indian society, which kind of lives on the outskirts of the cities and almost,
in many ways, is kind of like in a different time zone. So Pavitr is actually
a village boy who is brought to Mumbai and came to one of the top schools
there on a scholarship. And because he is very traditional in his wardrobe,
he's very traditional in his manners, he's, you know, kind of seen as someone
who doesn't really get with it in terms of city lifestyle. He's an outcast
for that reason.

GROSS: What kind of mystical powers do you think you're going to give him?

Mr. DEVARAJAN: Well, one of the things is--I mean, since the whole story line
really is about tying it into this mythology and this mysticism, how he will
defeat The Green Goblin and how some of his other villains will also manifest
themselves will be much more tied to the Indian mythologies. For example, in
Issue 2, we introduce the concept of Dr. Octopus, who also is one of the
villains who Spider-Man India will be facing. And unlike his US counterpart,
who has mechanical tentacle arms, the Indian equivalent of Dr. Octopus
actually is a multihanded demon. And if you're familiar with a lot of Indian
artwork or Indian mythology, there's a lot of demons and gods and heroes and
villains depicted with numerous hands and weapons. So that's something that
would be perfectly definitive of the Indian equivalent of a Dr. Octopus and
something we've had a lot of fun trying to interweave into that character.

GROSS: Now one of the things you've changed in "Spider-Man India" is the
superhero's costume. You want to describe it?

Mr. DEVARAJAN: Completely. I mean, that's been one of the funnest things
on--how to try and interweave some local elements and some more of the
traditional garb that, you know, is not exactly what people are wearing in the
streets of India today, by no means. But it's certainly more in tune with
some of the traditional wardrobe that has been derived from Indian culture.
He's wearing a--in the bottom of his costume, he's wearing a dhoti, which is a
traditional kind of trouser, a kind of sarong, that's worn in India. And his
shoes are the classical curve-toed shoes that they call juties in India.

GROSS: What you've done is license a lot of characters from Marvel Comics and
DC Comics and other places as well, so that you could take superhero stories
and translate them in other languages or, in the case of "Spider-Man," you can
write a completely new version of "Spider-Man" based in India. Now tell me if
I have this list right. The places that you...


GROSS: ...distribute comics to include Pakistan, India, Burma, Sri Lanka,
Nepal and Bangladesh.

Mr. DEVARAJAN: And Singapore and Malaysia as well.

GROSS: When you translate American comics into local languages around South
Asia, what are some of the most difficult things to translate? Expressions or
concepts that don't really have a translation in certain cultures?

Mr. DEVARAJAN: Well, I should also preface that saying that English is one of
the major languages of the Indian market, so we do also publish an English
edition certainly for the Indian subcontinent as well as Singapore and
Malaysia. And English is probably the--I mean, you have 150 million
English-speaking consumers in the Indian market today, so that's certainly one
great advantage. When you get into some of the local languages, depending on
the language and depending on the market you're in, the biggest challenge we
found is particularly with science--I mean, science experiments and, you know,
some of the amazing descriptions that they have in US comics, where they'll go
through details of a scientific experiment and the radioactivity and, you
know, even the extraterrestrial life. Some of those concepts we find a little
bit difficult in trying to translate those for, you know, some of the local
languages, making sure those same concepts can come through as strongly.

GROSS: It's not too long ago in the United States that comic books were
considered dangerous and trashy, and a lot of parents threw out their
children's comics, not realizing quite how--what collectors' items they'd

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: subsequent years. Teachers used to scold students for reading
comic books. Is there something similar now happening in South Asia, where
American comics are really catching on? And I'm thinking, too, not only about
parents but about how some of these comics might be seen as violating certain
religious principles.

Mr. DEVARAJAN: Well, I mean, as you said, I'm sure a lot of parents here
regret throwing out the comic books in hindsight. But in India, one of the
advantages is there's never been a negative stigma for comics in the history
of the culture. There were, at one point, you know, a lot of comic books that
were in the marketplace many, many years back and still some today that tried
to tell mythological stories of the Indian god, the Indian culture in the form
of comic books. And, in fact, those were very well-received by the major
population there and translated into numerous local languages. And many
parents would buy those comics for their kids as a way of teaching them the
mythology and the culture of India. So, thankfully, this generation of
parents that's there today in India grew up, actually, at a time when their
parents were giving them these kind of mythological comics to read. So they
don't have as much of a negative stigma about comics as you may find in other
parts of the world.

GROSS: Well, you know, I'm thinking there are a lot of American comics, there
are female superheroes, there are female villains, there are seductive women,
and I don't think that would play very well in Islamic cultures.

Mr. DEVARAJAN: Well, certainly. I mean, what we try to do is--and naturally
each of our local language editors are very careful to try and make sure that
we do not do anything that is offensive, by any means. We have a huge library
to choose from in terms of our editorial selections from both Marvel and DC
Comics and from the other comic book publishers we work with. So what we try
to do is not take a comic book and change it when we're doing these kind of
direct translations. What we'd rather do is try to find the right comic book
for that audience. So, for example, if you're dealing with a character such
as a Batman or a Superman or a Spider-Man, you have, literally, you know,
hundreds and hundreds of comics to choose from and pick the right editorial
for each of these markets that we feel--or each of these languages that we
feel would be suitable.

GROSS: My guest is Sharad Devarajan, the CEO of Gotham Entertainment Group.
They publish the new comic "Spider-Man India." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Sharad Devarajan, the CEO of Gotham Entertainment Group.
They publish the new comic "Spider-Man India," which has created an
Indian-born version of the superhero. And they publish many American comics
in Southeast Asia.

Your company started in '97. Did much of India already have comic books
before you started exporting American comics to India?

Mr. DEVARAJAN: Well, one of the challenges when we started, there were some
locally produced comic books in the Indian market, but the real problem was
that, you know, as the Indian audience was becoming more cultured and seeing a
lot of different types of media that were very cutting edge at this point, the
comic books that were being offered to them, being indigenous local comics
were very poor in terms of artwork and story lines and were, you know, just
losing the appeal of the consumer there. The other thing that was happening
is though you had some exports coming from the US market and from other
markets landing in the Indian market, the prices were far too high for an
Indian consumer to really go and purchase them or at least for the mass market
to really purchase them. You know, an average comic that was being imported
or sold here in the US that sells for about $2 to $3 would land in the Indian
market and some--sell somewhere in the region of 200 rupees to 300 rupees. By
contrast, one of the strategies we had was how do we bring this medium of
comic books back to the masses? So price was very important. To price these
as local magazines to get them out there at those kind of local prices at 10
rupees to 15 rupees, which is about 20 cents to 30 cents. That's what we
price our comic books for right now in India.

And the second was, obviously, in the local language market, how do we get
these comics to be, for the first time, available in these local markets? I
mean, one of the most amazing things when we started was that we knew wherever
we'd go in India, we could go to some of the most remote places, and there was
a--they would recognize the brands of "Superman" or a "Batman," they'd
recognize the logo of a "Spider-Man," of a character. They'd know the
characters, but they didn't know the origins, they didn't know the background,
they certainly didn't know the secret identities, how he got his powers. But
there was an innate curiosity to already go out, once we brought these comics
back to the masses at affordable prices to tell the stories.

GROSS: You grew up in the United States. Your parents are from India. What
did they make of your devotion to comic books?

Mr. DEVARAJAN: They were--I mean, they finally think it's finally paying off,
at least, all those years I forced them to buy me comic books, I'll tell you
that much. But I think the fortunate thing is I have amazing parents who were
very supportive of--I'm an artist by background, actually. I was an
illustrator by background many years ago. And before forming Gotham
Entertainment Group, from as old as I can remember, I was also drawing. So
comic books were one of the--I think for most artists, comic books are
some--one of the most amazing finds you'll ever have in the world. I mean,
some of the best illustrations you'll ever see are in the medium of comic
books, and that really was, you know, a profound inspiration to me. And I
think my parents also saw that comics were helping me in my artistic
development as well.

GROSS: Now I know you worked as an intern at DC Comics back in your college

Mr. DEVARAJAN: That's right. That's right.

GROSS: And I think that's when you first brought up the idea of marketing
American comics in South Asia, of licensing the comics and marketing them
there. And it worked. You did it. But, you know, I'm wondering, didn't the
people of DC Comics or Marvel Comics think you were a little young to take on
that kind of job? You were still an intern.

Mr. DEVARAJAN: Well, I mean, at that point, I think you have to remember back
in '97, I think India was a very different place, and I think, you know, they
knew also that we had some very talented people behind this company in terms
of the co-founder, with myself, Suresh Seethoraman, who is also an
experienced advertising executive from the Indian market and someone who
definitely is very familiar with the hands-on realities of the market there.
And I think what made them also very comfortable was that we had a great
understanding of their editorial. We had a great understanding of how we were
going to approach bringing these comics to the Indian market. And, you know,
one of the things is it's--it was a very rough road. I mean, it's certainly
still a rough road to bring these comics to a market, build distribution, you
know, build the interest in this new medium. So I think the strength of our
relationships with our comic-book publishers has been because they know
that we've been giving 120 percent of our life to this vision of really being
able to build this business. And I think that we have every ambition to make
"Superman," "Batman," "Spider-Man," "X-Men," all of these characters that
we've brought to India, household names by everyone in the Indian market in
terms of comic books.

GROSS: One of your subsidiary companies was co-founded by Deepak Chopra, who
a lot of our listeners will know for his spiritual self-help books. I was
really surprised to see his name linked to your enterprise. What's his
connection to comic books?

Mr. DEVARAJAN: Well, as you mentioned, we just formed a new partnership, a
new company that's called Gotham Studios Asia. And the goal of Gotham Studios
Asia, it's a partnership with Deepak Chopra, who is obviously, you know, one
of the leading Indian authors in the world today and, you know, a profoundly
creative human being, an amazing man. And Shekhar Kapur, who is, you know,
one of the most prolific film directors of our time. He was the director of
the Academy Award-nominated film "Elizabeth," and he's done "Four Feathers,"
and he's kind of regarded both in Bollywood and Hollywood as one of the best
directors in the world today. So for both of them, the purpose of Gotham
Studios Asia is unlike what we're doing with Gotham Entertainment Group, which
is really about finding the best content in the world today in terms of comic
books and bringing it to the Indian market. This is kind of reversing that
funnel, really trying to put together--what we're doing right now is building
a talent pool of artists and writers together in India that are going to be
focusing on, under Deepak and Shekhar's creative guidance, creating the next
wave of global character properties, reinventing contemporary Indian popular
art and then permeating this new style and vision to the rest of the world.

GROSS: How deep into Indian cosmology and spirituality do you think the
comics will actually get?

Mr. DEVARAJAN: In terms of "Spider-Man India," certainly that's not as deep
into it as some of the other projects we're working on. I mean, certainly
when you bring in Deepak Chopra into the area of creating comics with us and
Shekhar Kapur, you can be guaranteed that they're bringing a whole new level
of understanding the mythologies of India and integrating those into these
comic magazines. So the kind of story lines that we're putting together for
some of our own original content and some of the new stuff that will be coming
from Gotham Studios Asia will be deeply intertwined, I think, with a whole
different style of storytelling.

You know, one of the unique things about Eastern vs. Western storytelling is
the concept that, you know, in Eastern storytelling, your--the hero or the
character, anyone, is really much more infused with the concepts of destiny,
infused with the concept that he has a purpose in life that's beyond his
knowing and it's kind of predetermined for him. And how one adjusts his own
current living with all of these kind of cosmic forces is very important vs.
let's say the Western story art where man makes his own destiny. You find he
forges his own path, he makes, you know, things happen for him. So you have
these two ideologically different ways of telling these stories, and you're
finding that even in movies like "Last Samurai," you're finding that, you
know, in movies like "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," which are, you
know, resonating here, I think in terms of the story line or this concept of,
you know, man is one in tune with nature and destiny.

GROSS: Has Stan Lee, the co-creator of "Spider-Man," ever seen "Spider-Man

Mr. DEVARAJAN: I don't know, actually, and I'd love to get his feedback on
it, I can tell you that much.

GROSS: I'm sure you would.

Sharad Devarajan is the CEO of Gotham Entertainment Group, publisher of the
new comic "Spider-Man India." I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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